An estimated 1% of the global population — 78 million people — live with Bipolar Mood Disorder (BPD), a mental and physical illness characterized by extreme bouts of manic and depressive episodes. Occurring equally among men and women, BPD often first presents in early adulthood. While studies show a genetic component to the illness, the exact cause is unknown.
Many have struggled with BPD for decades, living with the condition undiagnosed, and cycling through relentless mood swings. Depression can drain one of their life essence, leaving them to feel as there’s nothing worth living for, while mania pushes one to a euphoric high that results in reckless, sometimes disastrous behavior. It has been said as high you go as is as far you will fall, and BPD makes these extremes not only terrifying but exhausting as they continue to repeat.
BPD harms not only the individual but all those who care for them, exposing them to the raw, visceral pain that it causes. For more than 20 years, Alain Thijs struggled with BPD, trying to cope with the illness, which went undiagnosed. Now on medication, Alain has stabilized, and his daughter Lea Thijs has created Safe House (Setanta Books), a series of black and white photographs documenting daily life as a means to come to terms with the family’s experiences of BPD.
“Dismantling the walls of my house in order to examine the foundations of my family, I wanted to photograph my father who has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Being able to put a name to his condition and explain his patterns of behavior after 20 years has enabled him to construct a sustainable environment around himself,” Thijs writes in her artist statement.
“Now under medication, I felt it was time for me to document my father in his home in South Africa, and revisit memories associated with his childhood in Brussels. ‘Safe House’, a title taken from The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, is an open door to explore my relationship with him.”
Thijs’s quiet, contemplative photographs of her father set amid the landscape of his daily life offer a tender portrait of the complexities of living with an invisible illness that has the power to destroy one’s peace of mind. Without captions to guide us through the book we are left to our own devices to contemplate, surmise, and project our own interpretations of these images. And that’s where it gets tricky.
We can’t quite be sure what we are seeing, beyond the literalness of a man standing beside a tree or lying in the bath. We can’t know if these are collaborative portraits offering visual metaphors of illness and health, actual documents of moments passing by, or a mix of the two. In essence, we don’t know what’s real, and that’s the truest truth.
“Fuck you, you don’t exist, (why) were you so unfair to me?” Alain Thijs writes in “The Storm,” the book’s afterword dated December 2, 2016. “My brain, fears, Alzheimer’s. I wanted to become a priest, I had dreams, become THE Pope, save the planet, and now, now. ‘You can’t even save myself, what’s the point in all this? You are so naive. You wanted to be an astronomer too, but you were not good at physics or maths. and now. exporting fruit and veg, you were dreaming Alain, You hate your job, you’re weak. Nathalie was right, you chose a job that was an easy solution, scared, Useless!’
“IT MUST STOP. THIS MUST STOP. IT MUST STOP! No hope, I need to be free, stronger than my nightmares.”
All images: © Lea Thijs